Yemen's president left his battered nation on Sunday, his spokesman said, after delivering a farewell speech in which he asked for forgiveness and said it was time to hand over power.
But in a sign that Ali Abdullah Saleh's role as a power broker in Yemeni affairs may be far from over, he said he would seek medical care in the United States, then return to Yemen before presidential elections next month to head his ruling party.
Despite signing a deal last year to pass powers to his vice president, Saleh has continued to exercise authority behind the scenes, sparking accusations he sought to cling to power. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has taken advantage of Yemen's political instability to enlarge its foothold in the Arab world's poorest nation.
Presidential spokesman Ahmed al-Soufi told The Associated Press that Saleh left Yemen's capital Sanaa late Sunday on a jet headed for the Persian Gulf sultanate of Oman. He did not say how long Saleh intended to remain in Oman, but added that he would make "another stop before heading to the United States of America."
Saleh's departure could help push forward a US-backed deal brokered by Yemen's powerful Persian Gulf neighbors that seeks to end the country's political crisis, which began nearly a year ago with mass protests inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.
In the deal, Saleh agreed to pass power to his deputy in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is to be rubber-stamped as the country's new leader in presidential elections on Feb. 21 in which he is expected to be the only candidate.
Saleh said in a farewell speech before his departure Sunday that he planned to travel to the United States for treatment for wounds sustained during a bomb blast in his palace mosque earlier this year, according to the official Yemeni news agency. He also was quoted as saying he intended to return to Yemen before presidential elections on Feb. 21 to head his ruling party.
US officials have not confirmed that Saleh will be heading to the United States. For weeks, Washington has been trying to find a country where Saleh could live in exile to facilitate a peaceful transition of power since it does not want him to settle in the United States.
The president, who has ruled for more than 33 years, left the country earlier in the uprising for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after the mosque attack. He made a surprise return to Yemen a few months later.
For nearly a year, Yemenis have been taking to the streets in great numbers to call for the end of Saleh's rule, often facing deadly crackdowns from Saleh's security forces.
Protesters and human rights groups reject the deal and criticize the immunity clause, saying Saleh should stand trial for his alleged role in protester deaths.